THE CLASS (2009). Don't be embarrassed if you start watching The Class and can't figure out if it's a documentary or a fictional piece; that's doubtless the effect that director Laurent Cantent was hoping to achieve. Winner of the top prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as well as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this French import is based on Entre les Murs (Between the Walls), a novel penned by schoolteacher Francois Begaudeau. Begaudeau co-wrote the script and plays himself in the movie, which is shot in cinema verite style by Cantent – add up all these facts and we're left with a fictionalized presentation that walks and talks like a documentary. Set in a Paris high school, the movie follows Begaudeau over the course of one year, sticking with him as he struggles to maintain his cool in the midst of so many openly hostile students. Certainly, there are plenty of good kids, but there are also some whose sole purpose on this planet seems to be to question authority. That's hardly a new concept – teens have been testing the patience of their elders ever since the first professor drew a mark on the cave wall and a pupil argued its purpose – but what's particularly interesting about The Class is that there aren't always clear-cut delineations between "right" and "wrong" behavior: The students' frustrations are sometimes justified, and while Begaudeau seems to have his heart in the right place, his ability to communicate often gets hampered by the limitations of the curriculum, the limitations of the teaching environment, and even by his own limitations as an instructor. There's nothing particularly revelatory about the film – unless you happen to believe that the U.S. is the only country with an educational system in disarray – but it's a piercing look at a generation gap that only seems to be gaping ever more widely.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Begaudeau and Cantent on select scenes; a 42-minute making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT (1972) / WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE? (1978). So here's the scoop on the much-ballyhooed Warner Archive collection. On the first and third Tuesday of each month, Warner Bros. releases a handful of its vault titles on DVD. Now here's the rub: These movies (in the words of the studio) "can be downloaded or purchased on DVDs that are made to order for the customer using a state-of-the-art manufacturing on Demand (MOD) process." In short, these flicks are only available for purchase through the studio Web site (WarnerArchive.com) or sometimes through Amazon; they cannot be rented through Netflix or Blockbuster. This is a bummer for folks who want to watch many of these titles but don't necessarily want to pay $19.95 (plus shipping) per film to own them; it also prevents a lot of truly fine films from having a chance to grace DVD store shelves and be re-discovered. On the other hand, it's at least nice to have these movies available on disc at all; film lovers just better be prepared to pop open that wallet at regular intervals. At present, there are just over 250 titles available, spanning the decades and featuring a wide array of stars (everyone from Al Jolson to Rob Lowe). Past releases include such Golden Age gems as 1930's The Big House and 1938's Four Daughters as well as more recent cult items like 1975's Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze and 1980's One Trick Pony. Included in the most recent batches are two '70s titles of note.
After helming a handful of films in New York (including three featuring then-unknown Robert De Niro), director Brian De Palma headed to Hollywood to make Get to Know Your Rabbit ... and was subsequently fired from the picture for creative differences with the studio and star Tom Smothers. Smothers (of The Smothers Brothers fame, natch) plays a corporate suit who gets tired of the rat race and drops out to become a magician. After receiving training from a veteran of the trade (Orson Welles), he takes his act on the road, tapping his former boss (John Astin) to be his manager and finding romance with a wide-eyed fan (Katharine Ross). De Palma's next picture (Sisters) would land him in the thriller field that would eventually make his name, but here, he still manages to include some neat stylistic touches in a film that's primarily about Jordan Crittenden's offbeat and wildly uneven screenplay. Meanwhile, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? is a fast-paced delight, with ace scripter Peter Stone adapting Nan and Ivan Lyons' novel Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe. Portly Robert Morley plays a British gourmand who suddenly finds that his favorite culinary masters from around the continent are being methodically dispatched in inventive ways. His favorite dessert chef (Jacqueline Bisset) might be next, but not if her brash ex-husband (George Segal) can solve the mystery in time ... or is he the killer? Everyone's a plausible suspect in this entertaining confection featuring a performance by Morley that's so terrific, he earned Best Supporting Actor honors from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics.
The only extra on Get to Know Your Rabbit is the theatrical trailer. There are no extras on Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
Get to Know Your Rabbit: **1/2
Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?: ***
I LOVE YOU, MAN (2009). Like most films in the Judd Apatow vein (the man himself wasn't involved with this project, but the principal players are all veterans of his works), this attempts to strike a desirable balance between sweet sincerity and risqué raunch. Yet perhaps more than any of the other films (Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.), it frequently pulls back when it reaches the edge of vulgarity. Still, that's not to say the picture doesn't fully deserve its R rating: With its ample selection of crude language, no one will be mistaking it for Mary Poppins. Paul Rudd (in a disarming performance) stars as Peter Klaven, a nice guy who's always put his energy into his relationships with women. Because of this, he doesn't have a single male friend, so after he proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (immensely appealing Rashida Jones) and realizes he has no one to serve as his best man at their wedding, he sets out on a mission to find an eligible dude. His first few "dates" are disastrous, but he eventually meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), who's his complete opposite: disheveled in appearance, able to converse openly about sex, and completely comfortable in his own guy-skin. It's after Sydney's first appearance that I Love You, Man had the potential to self-destruct, as most filmmakers would turn Sydney into a complete creep or psychopath, a walking nightmare fueled by booze and testosterone. Yet while he does often come across as boorish, he's allowed to remain a fundamentally ordinary guy, and an often decent one at that. Unlike some of the other sweet-and-sour comedies of modern times, this one doesn't provide much in the way of large belly laughs. but it's pleasurable enough to paste a smile on the face for the majority of its running time.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Rudd, Segel and director John Hamburg; three deleted scenes; an 18-minute making-of featurette; and a gag reel.
THE SOLOIST (2009). Here's yet another film that comes off as little more than a liberal screed. It has its merits scattered about, like so many chocolate sprinkles adorning a scoop of ice cream, but for a movie that's about compassion and understanding, it makes for a shockingly indifferent experience, filled with too many calculated homilies to allow for much more than superficial connections. It may be based on a true story, but it feels synthetic all the way. The heart of the piece – the relationship between Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, and Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man who was once a Julliard-approved musician – actually feels like the picture's most artificial component. Perhaps that's due to its similarities to Resurrecting the Champ, another recent film about the friendship between a white journalist (Josh Hartnett) and a black homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson). Or maybe it's because of its greater role as yet another picture that tries to assuage middle-class guilt by using a proxy to allow moviegoers insight into the travails of the most unfortunate among us. But the problem is that it usually only skirts the issues it raises (homelessness, lack of health care, mental illness, etc.), with the raw scenes – Nathaniel's physical assault of Steve, Steve's ex-wife (Catherine Keener) drunkenly taking him to task – too few and far between. Foxx and Downey do what they can to keep the story prickly, but when they have to contend with scenes as offensive and patronizing as the one that ends the film, even they can't prevent this from frequently hitting the wrong keys.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Joe Wright; 10 minutes of deleted scenes; a 20-minute making-of featurette; and a joint interview with the real Ayers and Lopez.